April 27, 2018
Mammootty, Karthika Muralidharan, Joy Mathew, Muthumani, Kailash, Ganapathi, K.P.A.C. Lalitha, Suresh Krishna
In so many respects, the conception, writing and execution of Uncle: My Dad’s Friend is brilliant. Director Girish Damodar’s film is startlingly honest in the way it grabs men in the audience by the collar and demands that they introspect about their hypocritical attitude towards women – protective of and fearful for the safety of the ones they love; casually disrespectful and lascivious, if not contemptuous towards the rest.
Joy Mathew’s writing is brutally frank in its assessment of ugly notions of masculinity that pervade our society and nurture these double standards. Considering that misogyny is intrinsic to so many contemporary mainstream Malayalam films, especially those headlined by Uncle’s star, this is a refreshing surprise.
Uncle stumbles repeatedly though by strewing bizarre red herrings around to cause us to make certain assumptions about Krishnakumar, the story’s Uncle played by Mammootty.
In the opening shots, as the credits roll, a violent mob vandalises property in a picturesque hill town. Soon, we see Shruthi (Karthika Muralidharan) standing on the street with a backpack. She is waiting for transport, perhaps a bus, and we can sense her unease when men sidle up to her with questions.
Already the air is thick with foreboding. Already as an audience member, I am worried for her. As a woman, I am doubly distressed, because I have been there a zillion times. The manner in which Damodar conjures up these feelings in just seconds is remarkable.
A car stops. The heart stops. But no, this time it is not a creepy stranger, it is Shruthi’s Dad’s buddy. Krishnakumar Uncle offers to drop her from Ooty where they are to her home in Kozhikode. And so the film’s journey begins.
Most of Uncle’s running time is spent cutting between Shruthi and Krishnakumar’s road trip through mountainous forest terrain on the one hand, and on the other hand, her parents back home. The mother (Muthumani) feels reassured of her girl’s safety since she knows KK to be her husband’s friend. Yet the husband Vijayan (Joy Mathew himself) appears inexplicably troubled by the news of the company his daughter finds herself in.
We soon figure out why. When the film dwells on him, it also repeatedly cuts to a group of men somewhere nearby, drinking, discussing women loosely, speculating in crude terms about the woman KK is with at that moment.
They are a disgusting lot and those early scenes are designed to other them, giving women viewers a sense of comfort in the conviction that they are not the kind of men we would spend time with – not my husband, my father, my boyfriend, my brother, my pal, not any man I love. Or are they?
The mind freezes over when the narrative switches to a flashback and the painful awareness dawns that these are, in fact, men who move among us. Shameer Muhammed’s editing of this portion is so unfussy, the shift so discreetly done, that we do not detect it until we spot Vijayan and Krishnakumar on screen in that same repulsive gang, and Vijayan – gentleman, gentle husband, Shruthi’s darling Daddy – is the one using the most vulgar language to describe KK’s sexual partners, as the men all appear to live vicariously through their bachelor friend’s promiscuous ways and his particular talent for hooking much younger women.
These passages are unnerving because of their everydayness. These men are not killing or raping women, they are not indulging in any form of physical violence, yet their lightly spoken words – reminiscent of the sexist, casteist sport in Sanal Kumar Sashidharan’s Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game) – mirror the visceral hate harboured by men who do. And they are people like us. They are our husband, father, boyfriend, brother, pal. They are the men we love.
Vijayan cannot tell his wife or child why he distrusts KK, because it will mean revealing a side of himself he has hidden from these women whose love and respect he values.
(Spoiler alert ends)
When it is with Shruthi’s parents and her father’s gang, and in the horrifying realness of a crowd scene later on, Uncle is an extraordinary film. The quality dips when it is on the road with Shruthi and KK though, because that is when we get transparent efforts, too clever by half, to heighten the suspense around their fate.
Shruthi’s achingly youthful innocence, the reactions of people they encounter, Vijayan’s unspoken fears and the audience’s own preconceptions are enough to underline the issues Uncle obviously wishes to highlight: social biases towards single people, the conjectures made about any man and woman seen together unless they are married, and more.
Mammootty’s track record of incessantly romancing female actors young enough to be his daughters and granddaughters in film after film since the 1990s, contributes too to the red flag that goes up as soon as we realise that the Krishnakumar Uncle who stops to give Shruthi a lift is played by him. In that sense, he is an on-point casting choice. Nothing more was required to keep the audience on tenterhooks on her behalf.
Yet in KK’s presence, Uncle tries to be more of a thriller than it needs to be. In its bid to build up our (the audience’s) suspicions of KK, it has him indulging in inappropriate behaviour which it ends up normalising when the denouement guilts us for reacting negatively to him in these parts.
The writing and Mammootty’s acting are both intentionally misleading here. In shots dotting their drive together, we catch KK looking oddly at Shruthi, who is still a minor. He has a decidedly lackadaisical attitude towards the security of this child in his charge, which results in them being out late at night despite her parents’ expressed misgivings and in unsafe places without her parents’ explicit consent. We are also acutely aware of his tendency to invade her personal space when there is no need to do so, such as when he insists on reaching across and buckling her seatbelt for her in spite of her protestations.
Any discomfort audience members may feel towards him here is natural and acceptable. It makes no sense to equate that response with the other condemnable prejudices he faces.
It is hard to understand why Messrs Damodar and Mathew would spoil their film by getting this crucial element so wrong, when they get so much else right in Uncle.
DoP Alagappan N. uses spectacular aerial shots to emphasise the remoteness of the locations where Shruthi finds herself with KK, while at one point he resorts to a distorted close-up of their vehicle’s interior and elsewhere to a fish-eye view of the outside. His camerawork, the understated sound design and Bijibal’s background score are crucial to the ominous air that blankets the film throughout. Even the unnecessary full-length song with Shruthi dancing in the woods fails to kill the mood, though it does act as an irritating distraction. The number in Mammootty’s voice though (the old Entha Johnsa Kallille revived), is well slotted and lots of fun.
All the artistes other than Mammootty are exceptional. Young Karthika Muralidharan perfectly conveys guilelessness without consciously trying to be cute, with a confidence undented by the presence of her veteran superstar colleague. Mathew, who has one of the film’s most challenging roles, strikes a flawless balance between Vijayan’s good and awful side. And Muthumani is outstanding in the climax.
In that scene and in the one preceding it, Mammootty metamorphoses into the actor that cinephiles have reason to adore. Shrugging off his trademark swagger, with the screenplay no longer requiring him to pretend to be anything other than what KK is, he gives us a slight droop of the shoulder and a fleeting pain in his eyes that remind us of why he is an acting legend. That we do not see more of that artiste on screen these days is one of the saddest realities of our time.
When it is at its best, Uncle: My Dad’s Friend is an excellent psychological drama bordering on a work of genius. By making needless overt attempts to manipulate the audience though, it robs itself of its potential greatness.
Rating (out of five stars): **1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
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